August 11, 2014

Residents frustrated as owner of mansion hosts parties

Case raises questions about whether homes can be used for parties, weekend stays

Even as Richland County prosecutes St. Andrews homeowners for using their mansion as an events and lodging venue, neighbors are fed up with zoning officials for not putting an end to the get-togethers.

They say homeowners Valerie and Charles Aiken continue to have big, noisy gatherings that crowd narrow neighborhood streets with visitors who park in their yards in defiance of the county zoning law.

But it’s not illegal to have parties, so the question has become, when is a party an event?

That’s one issue raised by the unusual zoning dispute at 1335 Elm Abode Terrace pitting the prominent parents of 1994’s Miss America, Kimberly Aiken, against middle-class residents who have largely kept their complaints to themselves – until now.

County zoning officials have decided not to continue ticketing the couple, pending a magistrate’s level case that will determine whether they have pushed the limits of the land-use law for permitted uses of their home, on 2.9 acres.

In the meantime, the Aikens’ lawyer, Toby Ward, says neighbors don’t have a leg to stand on. The Aikens’ parties are not “events,” he said, because they don’t accept money at the door when they host a baby shower for a family member or a benefit for a nonprofit group they support.

Residents say it doesn’t matter. The couple’s frequent gatherings generate noise, traffic and litter affecting those who live nearby.

On March 24, the county zoning administrator sent Valerie Aiken a letter ordering her to stop using her home, just off Broad River Road, as a bed and breakfast inn or events venue. More than two months later, on the evening of June 6, a code enforcement officer issued a ticket to Aiken for failure to comply with permitted uses at her newly restored 10 bedroom, 7 bathroom home.

A website set up in 2012 and used to make reservations – at a cost of $1,200 to $1,700 a night – was cited as corroborating evidence in the unusual magistrate’s case.

The June ticket is the only citation issued, despite what residents say are repeated offenses. Aiken has requested a jury trial.

Geonard Price, Richland County zoning administrator, said it’s unusual for the county to take someone to court on a zoning violation. But in this case, the Aikens did not comply with his order that they stop using their home for events.

“Most people do come into compliance rather than go to court,” where they can be fined $1,092.50, Price said.

And while his office could continue issuing tickets, Price said, that is not common either. “Our position typically is, ‘Let’s go to court first’ ... to get an understanding of where we stood legally.”

More recently, Valerie Aiken has asked the county to rezone her property for office and institutional use. Such a designation would cement her ability to rent out the house, something she acknowledged having done in advance of any zoning change.

Aiken said she is interested in hosting “classy types of events” such as weddings, baby showers and corporate meetings. In addition, she would like to rent out rooms during football weekends, the Masters Golf Tournament and perhaps some holidays.

“To rent the house out for a party, that’s not anything we want to do,” she said, adding later, “What one person might call a party is different from what another person might call a party.”

Legal definitions missing

Aiken’s lawyer said Richland County’s zoning law does not define “events.” Neither does it address what constitutes a short-term vacation rental, like renting out rooms in one’s primary residence during football weekends.

“We’re right smack-dab in the middle of a gray area,” he said.

As far as Ward is concerned, when it comes to the Aikens’ parties, the distinction is that the couple is not charging an admission fee. On Friday evening, for example, they hosted a back-to-school benefit for the Auntie Karen Foundation.

“They’re not having any events,” Ward said. “They’re entertaining people.”

Without county standards, residents are left to fend for themselves, said Michael Haigler, president of the Elm Abode neighborhood group.

“How do you control something that’s not defined?” he asked.

His point is that the county is not protecting the neighborhood, which has resisted commercial intrusion beyond the Broad River Road corridor. The community has faced down three or four attempts to rezone the property during the past 20 years, Haigler said.

“The only difference I can see (now) is power, wealth and influence. I truly believe if this application was anonymous and there was no name on it, it would have been dismissed from the go.”

But another issue might be working against the neighborhood of about 300 households.

Despite what neighbors say were rowdy parties over the past two years that frequently lasted until all hours, Richland County logged just two complaints, based on the response to a public records request. The State newspaper requested call-in reports to the ombudsman’s office for 2012, 2013 and so far in 2014.

In a third call, Councilman Paul Livingston asked staff in March to look into a business operating out of 1335 Elm Abode Terrace after residents at a neighborhood meeting filled him in.

A records check with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, also going back to 2012, showed no complaint reports for 1335 Elm Abode Terrace, said staff attorney Scott Hayes.

Councilman Damon Jeter said he’s “a little leery” because of a lack of documented complaints.

“The neighbors are not calling the proper authorities,” he said. “They may have gotten one complaint or two complaints, but the neighbors have to build a case to say, ‘Hey, law enforcement knows about this issue; they were called and they issued a citation.’”

About 100 people attended a public hearing before Richland County Council on the issue last month. A decision whether to rezone the property was delayed until Sept. 23.

Jeter added: “I hope it doesn’t have any racial undertones in that folks that testified – it kind of was like a split down the middle, you know?”

But Haigler said that’s not the case.

“I don’t think it’s racial,” he said. “I think it’s more an issue of power and influence.”

He said the Elm Abode and adjacent Huffman Heights neighborhoods have become more diverse, both racially and by age, as they transition from the original owners who built their homes in the 1950s and 1960s.

As for the lack of complaints, Haigler said residents focused on trying to work with the Aikens, asking for meetings on at least three occasions since July 2012. Without success, Haigler said he began communicating directly with Price, the zoning administrator, by phone or email.

He acknowledged, however, that some residents felt uncomfortable calling authorities about a neighbor.

Another problem for the neighborhood is that a code enforcement official can’t issue a ticket without witnessing the objectionable activity and, “It’s extremely difficult for a citizen to contact a zoning official on the weekend,” Haigler said.

“We’re under siege,” with few options for help, he said.

Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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